My bruised hands hurt as I pulled myself up the rock-face. I was hot and sweaty. As I came above the natural windbreak that a line of high rocks had provided, the cold wind cut through my jacket and left me shivering uncontrollably. We were tired but we could not stop or even rest. This morning, our group of the Corps of Engineers Scientific and Ecological Expedition had had just negotiated the Stairway to Heaven and we were now on a razor-sharp jigsaw puzzle of rocks, some five feet high, some fifty. The rocks were layered and cracked on end, here they offered good grips; there they were crumpled and had nothing to offer but rocky slides and yawning chasms. All of us moved carefully – it would not do twist an ankle here. For this hell hole was Patal Khan, the slate mine and today’s destination was beyond this.
But my nerves were still on edge. The Stairway had been a nightmare – five hundred metres of insubstantial fixed rope. The path was but a series of indentations slanting across a steep rock slope; each just large enough to place the pad of a foot or a heel but not both. One had to lean onto the rock face at the right because the left hand stretched straight out and over the abyss. If one slipped, the rope would serve not to save us, but to doom us all as we would careen off into space and thud and splash thousands of feet below.
Far below out of sight, flowed the Rishiganga which eternally reminded us with its roar that we, mere mortals, had dared to venture into hallowed ground – the inner sanctuary of the Valley of the Lost Horizon, the path through which took 37 years after it had been first glimpsed to discover.
Between two rocks, bending down to ease the strain of my overfilled rucksack, I glimpsed a smidgen of green through the boulders. Yet the porter guided us unerringly through this stony maze. Before I realised it, my feet trod no longer on hard rock but on soil layered with a thick carpet of grass and herbs. We had reached our destination, the bugyal of our dreams, Sarson Patal.
But crossing the rock maze, it is not the picturesque high altitude meadow which intrigues you but the feature towering over all of us high up into the sky, the most beautiful mountain in the world – NandaDevi.
Shock and awe!
That’s what I felt – the first time I saw her up close, in the flesh. She towered up above us until it seemed she would touch the very roof of the world!
Words failed me. ..
Magnificent, strong, eternal, immobile – all these seemed inadequate. ..
She was truly a Goddess.
The sun shone low over the Western sky and the face of the mountain was covered in a blue shadow. Eerily hypnotic, I realised that for the last thirteen years or so, no man had stepped on this earth till our expedition thrust through the Rishiganga gorge in the early summer of 1993 and made its way to the mountain’s threshold. A nudge from a passing mate – I think it was Samant – woke from me from my reverie and I trudged wearily on.
The day’s march was not yet over. We still had to march right across the alpine meadow to reach the campsite at its western end. As the sun lowered itself in the sky, we crossed a number of small ridges, most of them rocky with patches of scrub and grass lining the streams between them and dwarf junipers on their crests. Dog tired, we splashed through the streams and struggled up the slopes, unable to enjoy the rosy edges of the western crest-lines which told us where the sun had slipped below to give way to the twilight. It became darker, but an early moon illuminated our path across a never-ending series of billowing grassy slopes. All at once we plunged down a steep slope into a draw and there, nestled amongst a twisted skein of small streams, were the four white army arctic tents of the advance party. We had reached home!
The next morning, as we had reached our destination, our predecessors allowed us to sleep on, but they packed their belongings and moved ahead as soon as we woke. Wide awake in the cold morning. Ice cold water for ablutions. A mist hovered high above the draw but hugging Sarson Patal above us. The foot-slopes of Nandadevi were barely visible ahead.
We spent a couple of hours doing all those things that need to be done to get a camp in shape. By then, the mist had cleared and the sun shone on Sarson Patal. I clambered up the slope back to the alpine meadow, and what a sight it was.
The cold wind greeted me once again as I cleared the crest. A perennial chilly breeze blows across Sarson Patal, though you disregard it on a sunny day as I did. My eyes swept across the verdant swathes of the bugyal, which lay at the base of Nandadevi separated from her by the Rishiganga which flowed in between; a dangerous torrent even though we were so close to its source. The alpine meadow extended across the river as a narrow strip at the base of the mountain, topped by a rocky slope, boulder-strewn which climbed up and away to the Southern face of the mountain.
It seems that time stands still in Sarson Patal. These timeless words described the view I saw before me perfectly…
“The camp site was a delicious change after the cramped asperity of the quarters to which we had now been long accustomed and it was difficult to say what gave most pleasure, the space, the flatness or the absence of rock. Below our little hollow, the rounded slope curved gently down to the southern bank of the Rishi and the contrast between the opposite bank and ours was as great as it might well be, and could be adequately summed up in the words ‘frowning cliffs’ and ‘smiling downs’. On our side, wide slopes of short sweet grass extended in all directions; a herd of cattle grazing on some distant rise or a flock of sheep coming over the hill would have caused no surprise, so peaceful was the scene. But across the river, presenting a seemly unbroken alteration of buttress and gully along four straight miles of river frontage; and beyond these the snow and rock of the western ridge of Nandadevi loomed vaguely in the swirling mists.”
That was Bill Tilman’s description of Sarson Patal in 1936. They were still a valid and vivid description of Sarson Patal, more than half a century later.
As I stood there, at the heart of the Inner Sanctuary, I could see a ring of high mountains all around, each a grand behemoth in its own regard. These majestic peaks form a rim surrounding Nandadevi and are known as the Sanctuary Wall.
On the eastern edge of the Sanctuary stands the impressive Mrigthuni (22,500ft), Devtoli (22,300ft) and Maiktoli (22,300ft). At the eastward end, Longstaff’s Col connects the snow-capped heights to Nandadevi East, out of sight from Sarson Patal. Nandadevi East connects to Nandadevi itself. The North Sanctuary Wall includes the peaks Latu Dhura (21,000ft), Rishi Pahar (22,900ft), Deo Damla (21,700ft), and Mangroan (21,500ft). On the west flank of the Sanctuary wall, Kalanka (22,900ft) Changabang (22,500ft), and Dunagiri (23,000ft) keep the rest of the world at bay. On the south side of the Sanctuary Wall rises Bethartoli Himal & South (20,800 & 20,700ft respectively) and Trisul (23,400ft). Yet others are echeloned nearby, Nandaghunti, Nandakhat,…..there they stood in the bright, clear sunlight, imposing sentinels who protected the Goddess.
Sarson Patal was a carpet of grasses, herbs and shrubs. In those days I could not identify any wild flowers, unless I had Polunin and Stainton’s ‘Wildflowers of the Himalayas’ jammed in front of me and someone to guide me as I leafed through the hundreds of illustrations therein. The flowers were still few and far between because summer had yet to catch up with us at this altitude. In between the grass stalks flew small white butterflies with rounded wings having small red and blue markings.
”Snow Apollos!”, I cried. This was the very first time in my life that I had seen them. Ethereal, lightly drifting like snowflakes, they flew low on the bugyal. Amidst them also flew swift, brown Indian Tortoiseshell butterflies.
In the hollows where there was less wind, Queen Of Spain Fritillaries could be found. And everywhere, oblivious of wind, flew Dark Clouded Yellows and Common Yellow Swallowtails, sometimes zipping wind-aided across the meadows. Sometimes they were clinging precariously onto grass stalks with wings slanted at an angle to the vertical and horizontal planes; whether their aim was to reduce exposure to wind and minimise moisture loss, or, to maximize sunlight absorption, I could not tell.
Without packs on our shoulders, walking felt more like floating. Strewn across the meadow were desiccated skulls of Blue Sheep or Bharal interspersed amongst white fibrous scats of Snow Leopard. This evidence of predator and prey reminded us that just by being here, we were changing the dynamics of animal populations.
Keen observation is something army officers, especially sappers, pride themselves in, yet to me the mountain opposite looked barren. Satya gently took me aside and pointed out indistinct specks of grey dusted over the slopes. I put the pair of binoculars to my eyes and focused on one of the specks and to my astonishment, there sprung into my field of view, a magnificent male bharal, facing away but with head turned back towards me, staring into my eyes. It was like a revelation. One moment, the mountain seemed lifeless, the next it teemed with hundreds of handsome blue sheep; graceful creatures grazing peacefully in the soft sunshine of the short summer.
All morning they would graze and as the weather takes a turn after noon, as it always does in mountains, these Bharal would climb up amongst the rocks, carelessly leaping across breathtaking near-vertical faces and slopes as if they were the great flat maidans of the Gangetic Plain. There amidst the rocks, were niches and crannies which gave protection from the weather and safety from their foe. Amongst them, Satya mentioned, were many ewes heavy with lamb and young males bounding forth with the energy of their first year as adults.
A few hundred meters from our campsite, stood a stone tablet placed by the Paratroopers in 1980 before they climbed the mountain. It tells a tragic tale, being dedicated to the late Nanda Devi Unsoeld. American mountaineer Willi Unsoeld, upon seeing Nanda Devi in the Indian Himalayas in 1949 for the first time, vowed to name his first daughter after the mountain. Twenty-seven years later he returned as co-leader of an expedition organized by his daughter to climb the peak. Nanda Devi died on her namesake mountain during the 1976 expedition which has been criticised for allowing untrained people so high up on a technically difficult, extremely high and challenging mountain. The Paras themselves had a disastrous expedition, losing all their summiters. The memorial was thus a sombre reminder that though all was idyllic in the sunshine, our expedition-mates, attempting the mountain a few kilometres away, were precariously placed. It would take very small twist in our fortunes indeed for lives to be placed in jeopardy.
Our first task was to convert our camp into a staging point for pushing stores to the Base Camp at the top of the Nandadevi glacier. This was easily done as Capt Maharana, the member in charge of stores, and his team had made detailed systematic checklists.
The next was to make it a base for exploration by the scientists. We had Dr Ravi Sankaran of SACON, Dr S. Satyakumar of Wildlife Institute of India, Dr S.S. Samant of Pandit GB Pant Institute of Himalayan Environment and Development, Ajay Rastogi of the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) and Dr Bipin Balodi of the Botanical Survey of India. My good fortune was to be associated with them as the Officer-in-charge of the Ecological Team. In other words, I was the administrative support guy. The army’s desire to return to the most beautiful mountain of India was serendipitously timed with a realisation by the Forest Department that this was a golden opportunity to survey the park. Nandadevi National Park had been closed since the early eighties. This was a pristine environment in the Himalayas, something almost unheard off today. It requires a major administrative effort even to just reach the inner sanctuary. Piggybacking on our expedition, we had a team of scientists to survey the Inner Sanctuary. The scientists swiftly chalked out their plan of action and eagerly fanned out in various directions, accompanied with a jawan or porter so as to form buddy pairs.
The third task was to clear up Sarson Patal campsite. We had been doing this at each camp since we entered. Collect the trash, bag it, give it porters on their way back or fly it out as a return load on mail-choppers. Sarson Patal was a major case of garbage-disposal. Most expeditions did load-breaking here, or dumped stuff on their way out which they didn’t want to pay good money to porter out. This was strewn all over in the stream-beds. The two jawans who were part of my team and I spent many hours collecting trash and ‘scrapping and bagging’ it, as Tilman would have called it. Our hands got chapped fetching discarded cans and empty oxygen cylinders from icy waters. Often we had to dig out partly buried items.
The jawans did not like this task, but as long as I was doing exactly what they were doing, uncomplainingly complied. The porters did not like it either. An occasional porter even threw away trash loads en-route even though he could have earned the same rates for the returning trash loads as he had done for carrying normal loads into the sanctuary.
I made a collection of tin-can labels from the different countries whose expeditions had dumped so much trash in our mountains. At last count, I had seventeen and these were displayed as a collage at Pirojshah Godrej House of WWF at the exhibition after the expedition.
The days passed very quickly – time flies when you are having fun. Each morning, I would organise, task, communicate and arrange. After these mundane but vital duties were done and communicated, I was free to join the wild lifers or wander off on my own.
One night, there was a sound of many hooves stampeding through our camp. It was late and pitch-dark. We couldn’t see anything but morning revealed some hoof marks. We surmised later on that a predator – possibly a snow leopard, had alarmed a herd of bharal which stampeded right through the camp in desperation. The snow leopard is, of course, the holy grail of mountain wildlife biologists. The twinkle at the thought of seeing a snow leopard in Sathya’s eye was rivaled only by another twinkle when he fell for an attractive Garhwali colleague at the WII almost immediately after the expedition and married her. Sathya’s diligence was unsurpassed but his searches and trips to remote corners of the sanctuary turned up pugmarks, some fresh, more scats and more kills but never the elusive ounce itself.
One thing we always looked out for was bear and bear-sign. We had no weapons to protect ourselves and plenty of stuff to entice them. However we were disappointed to find sign of neither the black bear or its high altitude relative – the brown bear.
Ravi Sankaran was a mercurial figure, full of fun and ever ready for practical jokes. Lean, dark, with a perennial stubble, brown corduroy windcheater and a brown leather bag carrying a camera and 500mm lens which must have weighed a ton, he was the first to draw me away from the simplistic world of butterfly lists which seemed to the be-all and end-all to the amateur in those days and exposed me to the magic of living organisms.
This article has taken a long time to write because my memories of him and the thought that I had lost a good friend saw me shy away from my laptop time and again. Ravi was a towering presence, a force of nature, full of pranks and fun. He had the ignominious privilege of teaching me to play bridge.
Under the tutelage of some of India’s best ecologists, I began a small but useful study of the butterflies of Nandadevi. I selected some typical ecological zones and carried out spot counts, transects being out of the question. A later technique, taught to me by Satya which involved following the little creatures for a long time to learn more about their private lives, found me discovering some new food plants for the butterflies. The plant identifications were done by Samant whose off-hand recognition of young and growing plants confounded me. In this way, my work became the pioneering study for the butterflies of Nandadevi – not a compleat scholarly tome, but a useful beginning.
Things were not hunky-dory all the time. Once, we had a spell of bad weather. This resulted in a number of expedition mates falling prey to sniffling and small ailments. Dr Bharadwaj, our resident Doctor, soon found his time occupied examining team-members and porters. The daily duties continued but since wildlifing was not possible in the gusty rains, bridge, coffee and the telling of tall tales became our main pre-occupation. The swirling mist and howling wind led to a natural fear of a cloudburst on the mountains above our camp but thankfully this never happened. Two of our ecological team, Ajay Rastogi, an intense , bearded and spectacled ecologist with the WWF and Dr Bipin Balodi, a tall and laconic botanist were evacuated by chopper – Rastogi for bad feet and Balodi to deal with some urgent domestic developments.
Choppers! They were not just a great luxury, and a tremendous morale booster – these were our lifeline! The Army aviation boys from Bareilly with their mountain-climbing Cheetahs brought dak, goodies, news, medicines, the occasional VIP and evacuated our casualties (thankfully there were no serous cases). They once carried out some trash bags from base camp rather than return with empty loads. Flying in mountains is extremely dangerous. Flying close in support of expeditions and landing at windswept makeshift helipads even more so.
The arrival of a chopper was a great event at Sarson Patal. The pilots would arrive with the rising sun, the safest time to fly on most days. The helipad was marked with lime or ‘choona’, the wind sock was hoisted and we would wait expectantly for the sudden whirr of rotors climbing along the Rishi valley. Let a passing puff of cloud dim the sun or wall of mist drift across from the mountain and our hearts would race. Yet, sometimes despite the impenetrable thick mist on Sarson Patal, the chopper would miraculously appear from within the cloudbank and touch down like a feather. The day the chopper did not come when it was supposed to, all was dark, dreary and morose.
There was no greater happiness for me than than to see the green fuselage and bright roundels of the Army helicopters parked on Sarson Patal. I had no greater pleasure than to talk with, and ply hot coffee on the pilots in their blue or sometimes orange flying suits. There was no doubt that they risked their lives for us and we loved them for it. The best friend of the Indian soldier in the super-high picquets of the Himalayas, beside God and his arms and equipment, is the magnificent chopper pilot and his flying machine . Aside from the radio or the shots fired by the enemy, the soldier has no other link with the outside world except for the chopper which is nothing more or less than an angel in disguise.
You will find scant mention of the Corps of Engineers Scientific and Ecological Expedition 1993 in any article or book, even in the venerable tomes of the Himalayan Club on the Indian Himalayas but you will find, over and over again, the tragic tale of Nandadevi Unsoeld. This newsworthy but relatively insignificant attempt on Nandadevi in 1976 by a disparate bunch of foreigners is much reported. The Engineers expedition, a Government of India sanctioned climbing-cum-ecological mission of great import to the nation and the mountain itself, is not considered worthy of note. The first-ever ecological study of the Nandadevi Inner Sanctuary, the cleaning of the campsites, the checking of purity of water all along the course of the Rishi and from its western watershed, the close look at the lifestyle and requirements of the poor (but rich in spirit) Garhwali villagers of the Nandadevi Biosphere reserve, besides the climbing of the mountain itself, seem to carry no weight in the mountaineering fraternity, obsessed with its need to go there, climb up and get back.
The decision to open the sanctuary or not would be based on the report of these scientists. These reports unanimously recommended to the Government, the correctness of its decision of banning from these holy peaks of the rude hands and feet of mountaineers and the long line of destruction caused by the goats and porters which followed those expeditions. The vale of Nandadevi now blooms with protected medicinal plants, the monals explode across the forest clearings at Deodi and the musk deer find rare sanctuary in Dibrughetta. The bharal of the inner sanctuary are now as curious of man as they were in the time of Shipton and Odell.
It appears to me that I am hypocritical and not just a bit confused as far as my attitude towards mountaineers are concerned. Some friends are mountaineers, of these some, including those who went to Nandadevi, were genuinely concerned over the mountain, its beauty; they deplored the ravaging of nature and enjoyed the unmatched ambience which mother nature provides to undisturbed lands. On the other hand, some were not there with a spirit of supplication or piety of the kind advocated by Bill Aitken, they were there to ‘conquer’ the mountain and their scorn at people concerned with ‘softer’ concerns was plain to see . These then, must be clubbed with the boorish mountain climbers from abroad who desecrated these revered slopes with the specious excuse of climbing mountains because they are there. So, in my humble opinion, a good mountaineer cares about what he is doing, is knowledgeable about all around him, including nature, geology, the people and their small concerns and acts to minimise his ecological footprint in the mountains. He approaches the mountains with a sense of reverence, not with a desire to sate his ambitions. We need more Shiptons; we want no Hunts.
People like Mr Lavkumar Khacher who successfully lobbied to ban entry to the then much-ravished vale of Nandadevi can rest assured that the bharal lambs still frolic among the profusion of wild-flowers and the Himalayan Griffon still soars overhead searching for unwary marmot or pikas sunning itself in the brief blaze of summer on Sarson Patal – that most heavenly of bugyals in the Himalayas. Only the Nandadevi National Park provides true protection to its denizens – surely this is the finest blessing of the Goddess to her people.
- Unless specified, Wikimedia Commons.
- Postage stamps – Col Suresh Bagga (retd).
- Bharal – Reurinkjan (Flickr) on Wikimedia Commons. Licensed applicable Creative Commons 2.0 (Generic).
If you liked this post, dont miss – The Favours of Goddess Nandadevi.